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Piers Secunda’s Long Road to ISIS Bullet Hole Paintings

 Photograph of Piers Secunda, from Anna Lund (NJA)

By KURT MCVEY, MAY 2017

Piers Secunda was only ten years old when he sold his first work of art, a drawing of The River Great Ouse as viewed from a park bench in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, a historic county in England. A young and precocious Secunda happened to be staying with family friend Sarah Winter (Wintour), a direct decedent of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot accomplices, the ill-fated brothers Robert and Thomas Winter.  “That’s a rather nice drawing, would you like to sell it?” Secunda remembers a random passerby asking beside the river several decades ago. The man promptly took the drawing off his hands for 50 pence. “That’s the first time I became aware that being an artist was even a thing in this world,” recalls Secunda. Three years later, while walking out of a Van Gogh exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in the borough of Amsterdam South, a starry-eyed Secunda turned to his Grandmother and asked, “Oma, can I be an artist? She said, ‘Absolutely.’ From that moment I was an artist and never looked back.”

Secunda, who has since shown his work internationally, is now exhibiting a collection of his emotionally potent and historically valuable “ISIS Bullet Hole Paintings” at Gallery Thomas Jaeckel in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. What they are really, as Secunda likes to put it, are “objects made out of paint.” This partially clears up any confusion regarding exactly what these things are, technically speaking, but it might be best to return to Secunda’s linear artistic narrative in order to fully appreciate, not only his unique process, but also the full extent of his work’s thematic implications.  

“I was painting at 18,” says Secunda, from inside Jaeckel’s gallery space on the second floor of 532 West 25th Street. “I didn’t understand composition and I don’t like the standard format of painting on a flat surface. I found it very limiting. I wanted a more organic system. I wanted the painting to continue indefinitely.”  

ISIS Bullet Hole Painting (Four Horses) 2016, industrial floor paint, 50 cm x 12 cm, from Anna Lund (NJA)

So Secunda decided to “take painting for a walk.” In 1999 he moved from England to the Hudson Valley in Upstate, New York where he stayed with some friends, also freewheeling artist-types in their mid-20s. Secunda lived there for 3 years and in the process developed a way to make acrylic paint work in molds, edging ever closer to the answer to how one could make painting sculptural. In 2001, with the help of the award winning Golden Artist Colors (GOLDEN), a paint manufacturing company in New Berlin, New York, Secunda was able to move through an intense trial and error process until he landed on the right mixture of acrylic paint and hardeners to execute his vision.

“Acrylic paint dries slightly white and opaque,” notes Secunda. “Red goes pink and it shrinks and cracks. It’s often too fragile. It had to be able to flex and remain slightly chewy.” To finance his experimentation and pay for numerous 5 gallon buckets of acrylic paint, Secunda, replete with “heavy stubble and shoulder length hair” as he recalls, worked during the day as an in-demand house painter. “They’re all wooden houses Upstate. You have to paint them every two years. It’s like taxing people.”

In late 2002, Secunda finished a big structure, a 30 x 30” cube of white acrylic paint, which he titled “White Manifesto.” “Nothing that came before is relevant,” he says. The piece is named after Lucio Fontana’s Manifesto Blanco, which Fontana wrote with a collection of students in Buenos Aires in 1946. Fontana’s work emphasizes the importance of integrating science and technology with the arts. “Fontana was an artist from Italy who sliced his paintings and punctured them with a razorblade. By disrupting the picture-plane, you could open it up into a sculptural realm. My work acknowledges him [Fontana], while moving his ideas forward, 40 years later. I’m interested in taking the purest element of painting, removing it from the canvas and taking it somewhere.”

ISIS Bullet Hole Painting (Assyrian Boats) 2016, industrial floor paint, from Anna Lund (NJA)

Not long after this, an incredulous, house-paint-splattered Secunda hung up on an inquisitive curator calling from the Whitney Museum of American Art. Without Secunda knowing, Seth Kaufman, a San Francisco-based artist friend of similar intent, who constructs objects made out of paint flakes, put Secunda’s “White Manifesto” sculpture on the Whitney’s radar after sending in a photo of the work. “It must have been a surprise to him,” says Secunda, sympathizing with the curator while laughing at his younger self. “So he calls back, asks me if I have a pen and tells me to write a number and extension down. Of course I get, ‘You’ve reached the offices of the Whitney Museum, and so forth.’ ” Once on the phone, an admittedly green Secunda made the mistake of being honest with a major museum curator when he mentioned that no one else, besides Kaufman, even knew about the work. He didn’t hear back from the museum.

In late 2003, Secunda moved back to East London and began working exclusively in the UK. Due to excessive taxation, he couldn’t afford to import paint from GOLDEN any longer, as it cost him roughly three times the retail price. “I went out and started looking for a really strong paint with industrial coating, like the yellow lines on the street,” says Secunda. Soon, Dixotec Paints, a custom paint manufacturer in the UK, helped him find exactly what he was looking for. Using two-part floor paint mixed with hardeners and put through a severe exothermic curing process, Secunda was getting closer to executing any three-dimensional structure he wanted out of paint. Soon he was building large molds, like 6’ rectangular prisms, only to break them into pieces to create new assemblages.

By 2006, Secunda was molding complex fittings, clamps, and steel rebar into complex art objects, all very industrial and brightly colored, despite the artist remaining primarily interested in form and texture. In 2007, Secunda unveiled Paint Sculptures, his first solo show at Nettie Horn Gallery in London. The show was organized by Chelsea College of Arts, London, where the artist received his BA in Painting. His second solo exhibition, The Earth Draws It, at Zero10 Gallery (London), in some respects, included more sophisticated assemblage structures. “The nuts and bolts, also molds, were usually painted pink, so they stood out,” says the artist. “The works were brushed in a way that didn’t cover the molds completely. There was a lot of Frank Stella and perhaps even a bit of Chamberlain in that show.”

By 2009, Secunda had reached the place where the craft was completely under his control. This was confirmed after a private, two year mission to construct, from scratch, a Chinese Puzzle Ball, an ancient toy-a cross between a Russian Matryoshka nesting doll and a Rubick’s Cube-comprised of 13 concentric circles. Construction of this object has been a right of passage for high-level sculptors for centuries, but where does one go after mastering the craft? “This wasn’t intimidating, but liberating,” Secunda clarifies. “My feeling was, I want to bring the noise of the real world into the studio. What can cause these works to be engaged or fired by the real world? I hit on the idea of painting on the surface of objects with crude oil. I decided, by doing this, I was bringing everything that the outside world was, with all its geopolitics, into the studio in one fell swoop.”

ISIS Bullet Hole Painting (Assyrian Archer) 2016,  industrial floor paint, 53 cm x 4 cm, from Anna Lund (NJA)

Much of Secunda’s interest in oil was sparked by reading Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (Simon & Schuster). Halfway into the book, Secunda began ordering crude oil samples off Ebay, of all places. “If I mixed it with varnish, I could make the oil cure,” he says. “I liked painting with oil, but I knew I could do more than just applying it to the surface. I started thinking about how I could break the paint or have someone break the paint for me, to make the break itself more interesting.”

For a moment, Secunda had a vision of Japanese Whalers who “can’t stop whaling,” assaulting the paint with their harpoons. “It was crazy,” says Secunda with a laugh. “But I suddenly realized a bullet hole might be interesting. It dives into the surface. Also, a shattered bullet hole is a record of violence. As soon as you see it, you know what it is.”

In late 2009, Secunda embarked on a residency in China. While sitting on the airplane, Secunda wondered if he could get the Chinese Army to shoot bullet holes in his painterly sculptures. “If you don’t ask, you don’t know,” he says. “I received a master class on how to do this by a Latvian lady who was running the residency in Shanghai. Two weeks later, to my astonishment, we were headed to an army shooting range in the countryside of Shanghai.”

This Latvian curator, as the record would have it, was tall and blonde and spoke perfect Chinese. Rest assured, this wasn’t lost on her either. “We showed up on a freezing November day in a Chinese knockoff jeep which was leaking on us the whole way. She gets out in the rain, speaks to the guard at the gate, walks back to the car, and the gate magically opens. I thought, well if she’s on a roll I’m not going to say anything. We gave the soldiers a lot of coffee, tea, cigarettes, and pot noodles. They all gathered around while she was entertaining them in their language. It was incredible.”

Soon after this, there was a moment where everyone went awkwardly silent. The Latvian curator and secret fixer had created a bit of friendly competition amongst the soldiers, insinuating that a tall Chinese soldier from the North was a better shot than the rest who were from the South. “ It was a clever move,” says Secunda. “They walked out to the firing range right away to prove who’s the best shot. They all got bull’s-eyes. Then she introduced the idea that I owned a paint shop in Shanghai. So I produced samples of paint, and she asked outright, ‘Why not shoots some of these paint slabs for laughs?’ ”

Concluding this Tarantino-esque charade, they gathered up the paintings and left immediately. “The bullet holes looked like fractal, fist sized flowers. The surfaces of the works were still quite brown. The Chinese version of the paint was like coffee-the interior, slightly paler, cream-colored bullet holes. I knew they were finished works and they didn’t need color.” Secunda took the works back to Europe and showed the Chinese bullet paintings in several group shows, where they were well received. Very quickly, however, he was on to the next stage. “How do I turn the intensity up to a higher volume?”

Enter the sad tale of the Bamiyan Buddhas. At the instruction of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, roughly a decade earlier, the Bamiyan Buddhas-massive, priceless, timeless, spiritual sculptures carved out of the mountain side-were destroyed by terrorists. “There’s some texture,” thought Secunda, with a bit of dry British wittiness. “I wonder if there’s a way to capture Taliban bullet damage?” So Secunda started emailing people, mostly private security firms based out of Afghanistan. “How on Earth do I get there and who’s going to help me do this?” Secunda decided to think like a journalist and started seeking out local, Afghan run press agencies and fixers. He needed people who understood where the line in the sand was. The first person who answered was a man named Sardar Ahmad-Khan. His advice was this: getting close to the Buddhas as a non-Pashtun, white westerner was, if not entirely impossible, certainly suicidal.

As an alternative, Ahmad-Khan began mapping out in Kabul where all the recent suicide bombings went down. He was working on a $150 a day retainer. In August 2010, Secunda flew into the United Arab Emirates in Dubai and then onto Kabul. After settling in with a handful of journalists, he made his way with Ahmad-Khan to two bombing sites, which were heavily destroyed by gunfire as well. “The first day I was there, I got the molds I wanted and I was done,” recalls Secunda, sensing a survey of his nerves at this point. “I wrote a will before I left. I got quite nervous when the airplane landed. All you see is military equipment. When you go over a mountain, you’re told the Taliban will often fire RPG-7s (Rocket Propelled Grenades) straight up into the air. I was one of only three people on the flight and it was an enormous plane. I asked the flight attendant, “Is it always this busy?”

“Only flying this way,” she replied with barely a wink.

By 2014, the Taliban works were shown in Hong Kong, Australia, the United States and Canada, respectively. On one otherwise pleasant afternoon, while Secunda was working on pieces for a group show in New York, he opened The Washington Post only to read about a terrorist attack in Kabul at the Serena Hotel. “The Taliban went into the Serena, right into the bathroom, pulled small guns from gun-shaped holes they carved into the bottom of their shoes, came out and just started shooting,” remembers Secunda. “The first person they shot was Sardar Ahmad-Khan (Secunda’s fixer). He put together his agency to create a communication bridge between the Western media and the Taliban. He was able to approach the Taliban, but they literally shot the messenger, right in the back of the head. They also shot his three children while his wife was watching and screaming. Then they shot her.”

Sardar Ahmad-Khan would often email Secunda and tell him to keep up the good work. He was a fan. He also understood that Secunda’s molds, to whatever degree, were “real” evidence of the senseless destruction currently eviscerating his homeland and those like his. Soon, a new and more dangerous threat was emerging; ISIS, and they were already tearing the Middle East to pieces. “They [ISIS] were destroying artifacts on an industrial scale, even blowing the tops off mountains to find artifacts to sell for military supplies,” says Secunda. “This was completely unprecedented. Nothing has gone further in this regard.” For Secunda, this was too big to ignore. He quickly found himself on a plane to Iraq. This was October 2015.

ISIS Bullet Hole Painting (The Wine Maker) 2016,  industrial floor paint, from Anna Lund (NJA)

“I began having conversations with some Kurdish people,” says the artist. “We went to North East Iraq-Iraqi Kurdistan. I was met by The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdish authorities in Iraq. We flew into Sulaimaniyah International Airport and they took me right to the front line. We then drove on to Kirkuk and met the security chief.” Here it was explained that Western Iran, Southern Turkey and Eastern Iran, were made Muslim by being forced, primarily. They’re Kurds, first and foremost, and because of this, Kirkuk was a very moderate place. “There’s an irony to that because they’re sandwiched between Iraq and Iran,” notes Secunda.

Soon, the Peshmerger, the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan who had by that point liberated over 50 villages, were leading Secunda through a school complex recently destroyed by a devastating air strike. ISIS had previously made it a regional headquarters where they stored ammunition and could effectively house their militia. Only one building out of several dozen remained standing. “The Peshmerger told me bullet damage on that side of one wall is ISIS and the holes on this side are ours. It was all rubble and detritus. At one point, I almost stepped on an unspent mortar lying on the ground. A solider picked it up and waved it at me in a friendly way. It was surreal.”

The next day, Secunda connected with Idros Adil, Mayor of Daquq, a city in the Kirkuk Governate. Along with Adil’s security detail, they set out to the next location, cruising single-file across a flat desolate plane in four white Land Cruisers. “As I’m molding in the next village, roughly 30 yards from an embankment that marks the ISIS front lines, an explosion goes off. I asked if we needed to be concerned. I got the impression that I should just carry on, so I do. I finish, we pack up and drive out the way we came in, but right past a giant steaming hole beside the road that wasn’t there before. Our fixer, Kamel just says, nonchalantly, “Oh, that’s where that happened.”

Ultimately, Secunda was only in Iraq for 3 days before heading back to England where he put the finishing touches on these works, which included arranging the castings within flat molds derived from ancient Greek and Assyrian artworks. These arresting “objects made out of paint,” a phrase that comically underscores their silent yet salient ability to illuminate the violent erasure, not only of human souls, but the bold evidence of various ancient cultures’ most noble humanitarian ambitions, now currently hang in Gallery Thomas Jaeckel until May 6, 2017. “I wanted to make a record, not a political statement,” says Secunda, handsome and grizzled, nimble and tired, charming and curt, and somehow both calm and restless, simultaneously. Where this practice will take him next remains to be seen. “These works, they are a way of capturing a single frame out of a real film; an instant moment-a snapshot in time.” WM

 

Kurt McVey


Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.

photo by Monet Lucki

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